Beyond SLAs, team principles empower your team and drive performance

More ambitious than SLAs, more specific that company principles and more unifying that personal promises; team principles guide decision making and drive performance for teams of every kind.


5/23/20243 min read

Decision making is a prized and important skill, central to being effective at many disciplines including customer success. Innocuous or even correct decisions often have opportunity-costs; choosing what to do next is at the expense of what you're not doing next. High consequence decisions can be difficult to make purely because the opportunity-cost is one you're reluctant to pay - product road map priorities anyone?

Great decision-making is born of expert intuition, checking your gut-check, prompt discretion and accurate data. It takes time to hone this skill and yet there's no getting away from it - everyone has a first job, first month, first desperate customer pushing for a decision right now.

Time-sensitive decisions are often among the most dangerous decisions because going through the data, double-checking assumptions or even exercising discretion can seem to fly in the face of the immediate demand - urgency. We all know this situation and know the accompanying stress that's amplified when you don't have relevant experience and context (expert intuition) to fall back on.

It's in these scenarios where the depth of your process will support, confuse or hamstring your team.

Scripts, SLAs and of course training go a long way towards informing in-the-moment decisions but they have their limitations. They all take time to learn, SLAs often represent a transactional bare minimum expectation, scripts both undermine skill in a team, and depending on the nature of your customers and function, can be impractical, unwieldy and loathed. A shared mission, perennial priorities or principles are more ambitious than SLAs, more practical than scripts and more intuitive than - though in no way a replacement for - training.

I have worked with reactive support, project-led and commercial teams to develop their principles and have found them to be equally effective across functions. Your team's principles won't apply to every scenario but they should be broad enough to provide meaningful direction. Here are some internal and customer-facing examples:

  • If we can do the task in less than 3 minutes, we do it immediately - whether it's our role or not

  • We onboard every basic account within 45 days

  • We deliver 20 new live use cases every month

  • Customer complaints always take priority over all internal meetings and events

Team principles offer ownership of culture

Most companies document and publicise a set of values, better yet, some take pains to ensure that they are more than purely aspirational. But I'd be hard-pressed to say that many are unique or inspirational. Much like SLAs, they're a bit perfunctory, it's nice to hear that you would prefer your colleagues care about one another and even (gasp!) other people, but it's not exactly a galvanizing point of pride. In defining a principle for just a team you can be a bit more punchy and in doing so tap into the deeper motivation associated with keeping a personal promise.

It's important that these principles apply to a team. Everyone has principles which they believe to varying to degrees of conviction but we want to tap into something unifying. A team's shared set of principles has an extra layer of accountability when compared with personal obligations and can be more specific than company principles so that they encourage bold action, not just discourage other actions.

Principles often just need permission to manifest themselves

Effectively devising and embedding this set of promises demands consensus among the team and such close alignment with team objectives that they, at least in part, form them. These principles must also align with company objectives and leadership priorities. Lastly, as they have the potential to drive performance, customer experience and reinforce culture, they must be encouraged and cherished at all levels of the business.

I have found that powerful principles jump out to teams easily, they don't need explaining or cajoling, they are often an existing effort that the team would love to be given authority to keep above all. The best mechanism for defining your team's principles is to stress-test the existing rallying points for alignment with the wider business and of course, results!

One final point on principles that is often overlooked is red lines; what you won't do can be as important as what you will. This might be as simple as ensuring that team principles build on company values and SLAs but even here they often require examples. Where reputation and culture are concerned, how you do something is definitely as important as what you do.

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